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A Few Thoughts on Low Wage Work and The Workers Who Do That Work

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Today, we're taking a look at a report the Brookings Institute published recently: Low wage work is more pervasive than you think and there aren't enough good jobs to go around.

Let's cut straight to it: What does the research say?

"Research is not encouraging, finding that while some workers move on from low-wage work to higher-paying jobs, many do not."

So who are we talking about? Who gets stuck in low-wage employment? (Though the report says "stay in", we think that "get stuck in" is more accurate.)

"Women, people of color, and those with low levels of education are the most likely to stay in low-wage jobs."

Ok, but we've heard a lot of people talk about job skills. So what about job training or re-training or additional education?

"The conversation can’t end with the assumption that if only workers had more skills, everything would be fine."

Oh. We hear what you're saying: This is not an individual issue, this is structural. Why is that?

"The success of any job seeker depends not only on his or her skills, but on the strength of the economy, the credentials and experience that employers look for, and the number and types of jobs available."

What's the bottom line?

"There are simply are not enough jobs paying decent wages for people without college degrees (who make up the majority of the labor force) to escape low-wage work. Nearly half of all workers earn wages that are not enough, on their own, to promote economic security."

That bears repeating:

Nearly half of all workers earn wages that are not enough, on their own, to promote economic security.

We valorize work in this country, and what this report tells us is that people are working. They are working hard. They are working full time. And, yet, they still don't have the opportunity for basic economic security.

We're not even talking about getting rich. Or amassing a small amount of wealth. We're talking about relegating the majority of this nation's labor force to full time work without any stability.

This is patently unfair.

"Dani Rodrik and Charles Sabel capture the urgency and uncertainty of the current discourse on jobs and economic growth when they write, ’Where will the good jobs come from?'"

This is the central question nationally--and especially in our Wyoming communities. Wyoming is wrestling with this existential question as its traditional (and dominant) labor sector--the mineral and extractive industries--has continued to contract as part of an inevitable decline.

So the question continues to hang out there and we feel its reverberations acutely: Where will the good jobs comes from?

Brookings' policy analyst Amy Liu tries to tackle this piece of the puzzle when she writes about the markets and civics of continuous growth and highlights five principles:

  1. Set the right goals

  2. Grow from within

  3. Boost trade

  4. Invest in people and skills

  5. Connect place

We know from experience that the communities that have had the greatest success instinctively do all five of these things. Our concern for Wyoming is that we're so busy looking backwards that we haven't done the hard work of looking forward and setting the right goals.

So the question for each of us--and especially for Wyoming's lawmakers--is this: What will you do, what decisions will you make, what policies will you embrace that will foster an environment for good jobs?

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